Every American film made since Citizen Kane has, to a certain extent, lived in the shadow of this acclaimed production. Widely and frequently heralded as the greatest film ever made, Orson Welles' 1941 feature looms large in the annals of motion picture history. Now, imagine you are Welles himself, and Citizen Kane is your first film. What's more, you are only 26 when the movie is released. What could you possibly do next? How do you meet such lofty expectations?
This was the dilemma faced by Welles when he embarked on his second feature, the 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington's award-winner novel, The Magnificent Ambersons, a source he had previously had success with on the radio. The production is unquestionably ambitious. It's grandly staged, expertly shot, finely written and terrifically acted. But upon its initial preview, it was deemed too much, too somber and too serious, and the studio, RKO, began cutting away. Without Welles' cooperation, nearly an hour was excised from the film, the cut footage never to be seen again. Even the film's score was not spared. Famed composer Bernard Herrmann, who had done the score for Citizen Kane and would be most recognized as the sound behind so many Hitchcock films, asked to have his credit on the picture removed after he heard how the studio had tampered with arrangements.
As Welles himself put it, "For five or six reels things weren't so bad. I thought, 'Well, that isn't so bad. They didn't do too many things – only a few stupid little cuts.' And then all hell broke loose…It was a much better picture than Kane – if they'd just left it as it was." What we do have runs about 88 minutes, 88 fabulous minutes. Ultimately, the troubled production history of The Magnificent Ambersons is exemplary of one of cinema's greatest "what could have beens." With the original, almost mythical 10-hour cut of Erich Von Stroheim's Greed, the lost sequences from Welles' picture are some of film history's most tantalizing lost treasures. Thankfully, we can at least get a sense of what we're missing here with the inclusion of a detailed summary of cuts and alterations included in Peter Bogdanovich's invaluable "This is Orson Welles."
But now to the film at hand, and let none of this belittle the extant version of the movie. By any standard, The Magnificent Ambersons is a great film, and fortunately, enough of Welles' imprint remains. First, we have Welles as the narrator. A captivating voice before he was ever an on-screen personality, the filmmaker's instantly recognizable delivery is enchanting from syllable one. Is there any director, save for perhaps Werner Herzog, whom one could so pleasantly listen to for hours on end? He then sets the stage in a fashion not unlike Kane; we are abruptly thrust into the world of the picture via a barrage of visual and narrative techniques: fast-cutting, direct to camera comments, flashbacks, deep-focus cinematography, an assortment of camera placements and maneuvers, and on and on. Welles was nothing if not a masterful purveyor of uniquely filmic devices.
Unlike Citizen Kane though, which traces the rapid rise and fall of a man as he bursts head-first into the modern world, there is automatically something solemn and much more ominous with Ambersons. Here is a film that features characters reluctant to enter the modern age. Ambersons is, on the contrary, an elegy for days gone by, for ways and manners of the past, for lives that once were and are never to be again. We feel bad for those in the film, yes. But there is one whom we never fully get behind, one character who causes the audience to never quite become totally sympathetic for the frivolity of the old-world Ambersons. That would be the son of Isabel Amberson and Wilbur Minafer (Dolores Costello and Don Dillaway), the arrogant George, played by Tim Holt. Welles' narrator tells us of how the townsfolk express their distain for young George (and older George for that matter). They eagerly await the day he "gets his comeuppance." Truth be told, so do we. And yet he is our protagonist.
The character we do like though is Eugene, played by Joseph Cotton (co-star of Citizen Kane and one of the most endearingly likable screen presences in Hollywood history). In an unusual case where the older stands for the new and the young embodies the old, it's Eugene who seems confident and comfortable with the forward movement of time, as opposed to George who, in Bogdanovich's words, "represents the dying plutocracy." Eugene's optimism about modernity is explicitly conveyed in his profession: he's an automobile inventor (Welles' father tried his hand at the burgeoning business at one point). Post-locomotive, the automobile is the preeminent symbol for a faster, more mechanized and possibly more dangerous - physically, socially, politically - result of modern ingenuity and desire. It's clear which side history is on here. After deaths in the family and the awareness of a mismanagement of money, the Ambersons are in a perpetual state of decline throughout the film, while Eugene, on the other hand, continues to prosper.
There is more to The Magnificent Ambersons than this metaphoric contest between eras, ideologies and sociocultural implications though. "One shouldn't ever be conscious of the author as lecturer," said Welles. "When social or moral points are too heavily stressed, I always get uncomfortable." At the heart of the film are its relationships: George and Lucy (Eugene's daughter, played by Anne Baxter) and Eugene and Isabel. But these are rocky at best. George is rude and conceited and continually insults Eugene … not the best way to win over his daughter. And Eugene and Isabel, concealing a love that bloomed in their teenage years, have to overcome, first, her marriage (which, in a twisted but nonetheless realistic way, they do when Wilbur dies), and then the impediment of George's disapproval. Throw into the mix George's aunt Fanny, who also harbors a love for Eugene. Agnes Moorehead's performance as the peripheral aunt would be the film's only acting Oscar nomination. (Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White - Albert S. D'Agostino, A. Roland Fields, Darrell Silvera; Best Cinematography, Black-and-White - Stanley Cortez; and Best Picture would round out the film's other nominations.)
In the end though, it's perhaps Major Anderson (Richard Bennett), the grand patriarch of the family, whom we feel most sorry for. Outliving his wife and a daughter, he survives just long enough to also see his empire crumble. Shot in the dark in medium close-up, with only the flicker of a fire illuminating his aged and weary face, Major Anderson, by the conclusion of the film, is a shell of a man. He speaks of nonsensical trivialities and seems unaware (willingly, by mental instability, possibly both) of the drama that unfolds around him.
As for Orson Welles, to those who managed to see the film before it was relegated to the bottom of a double bill, it should have been clear that Citizen Kane was no fluke. This kid was for real. But things would never quite be the same for this wunderkind filmmaker; more struggles and, amazingly and against all odds, more astonishing films would follow. Here though, visually and aurally, the same noteworthy trademarks are present: the deep focus staging, the endlessly fluid camera movements, baroque lighting designs, expressive editing and overlapping dialogue. The entire Welles arsenal of cinematic devices are fully on display. Welles doesn't even do end credits like other people. Here, he reads the roles and the respective names ("Stanley Cortez was the photographer … Robert Wise was the film editor … Here's the cast…."). Then he concludes: "I wrote the script and directed it. My name is Orson Welles. … This is a Mercury Production." It's chilling, in the best possible way.